Unite under Major or lose election, Archer tells Tories

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Chief Political Correspondent

The Tories will deserve to lose the next general election badly unless they unite behind John Major's leadership, Lord Archer warned yesterday.

The novelist and former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party called for an end to the leadership threats against Mr Major as the party faced more blows over Jonathan Aitken and the resignation of Richard Spring, a ministerial aide.

"If we go on quarrelling with ourselves in public, and appear on the radio and television fighting each other and not the Labour Party, not only will we lose, we will lose badly, and we will deserve to lose," he said on BBC radio. "We must show some unity, we must get behind the Prime Minister."

Lord Archer spoke out after Mr Spring, 48, the MP for Bury St Edmunds, quit as parliamentary private secretary to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, after allegations of a "three-in- a-bed" sex romp with a Sunday school teacher.

The former defence minister, Alan Clark, said Mr Spring should not have resigned. "It's absurd to lose your nerve about disclosures about what is laughingly called one's private life. If MPs take bribes or commissions or hospitality, then it's a grey area of corruption - that's a totally different question," he said. "I don't know how more effective a government of total celibates would be than a government of train spotters. Either of them might be better than the one we have got at the moment."

Senior party sources said yesterday that the Prime Minister could not ignore a threat to his leadership if there was a large-scale loss of confidence in him after the local elections.

John Major told party activists he would not go without a fight. But the source said: "If 50 or so Tory MPs went to the chief whip [Richard Ryder] and said if he did not go, there would be a leadership election in the autumn, he could not ignore it."

A total of 33 MPs would be needed to force a challenge, but backbench critics confirmed they would be prepared to tell the Chief Whip that Mr Major should go before facing a formal challenge if the feeling grew the Tories could not win a general election under his leadership.

The VE Day celebrations could help Mr Major to escape the worst of the aftermath from the local election results on 4 May. They will be followed the next day by a unique meeting of the Commons and the Lords at the Palace of Westminster attended by the Queen to celebrate VE Day. "He has proved lucky with the timing of parliamentary recesses. They always seem to happen when there would be a crisis. He is a bit like Houdini," one senior Tory backbench critic said. After the VE Day celebrations at Westminster, Mr Major is due to fly to Paris, Berlin and Moscow for further ceremonies commemorating the end of the Second World War.